Nagoya/Super Culinary Mistake Go!
August 24, 2009
I should probably do my best to discard the concept of “sister cities” when I go to a new place, because I always end up comparing wherever I am with whatever place Wikipedia says has sister standing to it. Nagoya could be similar to any city in the world, but riding the train into the city the only place in my mind was Los Angeles. Even though I hadn’t seen a single street yet.
Going in with the preconception that Nagoya was basically Los Angeles East pretty much makes my final judgment that Nagoya is, in fact, like Los Angeles pretty shaky. I’ve been biased since the beginning. I never once compared anything I saw here to St. Louis or Seattle (both of which kinda make sense on reflection). I always thought “hm, how is this thing that I’m seeing in Nagoya similar to LA.” Journalists out there, never be like me.
Still…Nagoya is a very spread out city that doesn’t have many skyscrapers. The downtown is relatively small compared to other major metropolitan areas (think Chicago), but the city seems sliced up into different neighborhoods, a lot of them consisting of houses/apartments and various shops. It sits on the ocean, and has a big port full of huge boats and palm trees. Nagoya boasts a very large foreign community, and is the first city in Japan to actually offer Mexican food as a dining option. Things are very overpriced ($16 for a hamburger at Red Lobster? And…they have Red Lobster in Japan???). Geez, the baseball teams use the same font for Pete’s sake. The only major difference…and it is a MAJOR difference…is Nagoya has an amazing public transportation system while Los Angeles has a couple buses. I think.
I won’t make any final judgments, however, because I barely got to explore all the places Nagoya offers. The trip into the city was an excursion to get re-entry permits – if you leave Japan without one, you will not be getting back in – so a good chunk of time was wasted sitting in a DMW-ish government building waiting for my number to be called. Factor in all the transit, and using time wisely became objective number one. Instead of wandering around aimlessly looking at snack shops and clothes stores, a group of us spent most of the afternoon in the same place: the Nagoya port.
For lack of better phrasing, the Nagoya port is so cool. Being up in the mountains, I felt a rush of excitement at getting off the train station and seeing palm trees all around me, a joy soon multiplied ten-fold by the sight of the ocean. Plus, big boats, neat-o bridges and a Ferris wheel I’d love to ride. Even more neat, though, is the port’s strict adherence to a theme, best summed up as “penguin chic.” A bunch of signs in the area featured penguins. The walkway barriers looked like minimalist penguins. Even the post boxes are penguins!
Penguins populate the port in such heavy numbers because of the attraction we spent most of the day at: the Nagoya Port Public Aquarium. It’s one of the biggest aquariums I’ve ever been to (three stories) and also one of the best.
Seeing as I’m a dude who owns the right to the domain http://www.cuteanimalblog.com (interjection: every night before bed, I say a little prayer that a site will appear at this URL someday. Pray with me people, or teach me how to make a website), I love buildings filled with awesome animals. And this aquarium didn’t disappoint – after you surrender your ticket, you immediately see the big dolphin tank where three of the critters are swimming and jumping and ramming into one-another like five-year-olds spazzed out on sugar.
Other highlights: seeing Beluga Whales (and an actual baby beluga!), the always-crowd-pleasing penguin den, watching a dolphin go all Tony Hawk in mid-air, having a baby turtle wave at me and breathing a sigh of relief when I realized Cafe Tortoise (aquarium eatery) did not serve fish. The only head-scratcher came when I realized the aquarium had two films playing – one presumably about being a dolphin and one about, uh, Pokemon floating around on bubbles. Hey, whatever gets people in the seats.
My favorite part of the trip (and also the reason I really do the whole cute animal thing) is seeing people react to the animals. Kids genuinely appear to go bonkers for undersea animals – it makes me grin Cheshire-cat big seeing some toddlers clap and hoot because a bottlenose dolphin looked at them. Or seeing a family go “Nemo! Nemo!” after stumbling across the clownfish exhibit. The adult’s reactions might be even better – at least at the Nagoya Aquarium, everyone seemed to be acting seven again, but in a good way. Clapping for dolphin tricks, staring intently at the penguins as dove into the water, flipping out when they saw the animatronically-creepy Spider Crabs lurching around in their tank. Seeing people happy makes my day, and it seemed to abound at the aquarium.
Today marked another Japan first – my first-ever terrible food-ordering decision in the country. After the aquarium, we headed over to Jetty, a mall-type building in the area, and tried to find dinner. We were initially drawn to a joint called Cat Garden, under the assumption it was a business renting out cats (this is Japan, why wouldn’t they let you rent a cat?). Sadly, it turned out to be just a cafe, albeit a cafe with one of the most brain-confusing-but-amazing signs I’ve ever had the pleasure of looking at.
We next ventured to Red Lobster, but the prices were stupid high and I don’t think they even gave you cheddar rolls which, as anyone with a hint of culinary knowledge knows, is the only reason to eat at Red Lobster. Failing at every turn and growing increasingly hungry, we settled on ordering something from the food court downstairs. I initially wanted McDonalds, but decided to be a bit more daring and order from some Japanese place.
I had no idea what anything on the menu was, so I settled on a dish resembling meatballs. After telling the lady preparing them “no mayo” (could have actually used it, read on…), I received my order and did what any man of class would do – I started jabbing my chopsticks into it like a surgeon to figure out what it was.
We sat down and I took a bite out of the mystery ball. It felt like nothing I had expected – it was doughy, and full of a thickish filling a friend later described as “brown onion soup-y” which I think might be right on. Confused, I looked into the gaping hole in my dinner to see what lay inside.
Sitting right in the middle of the dough was a tentacle. Not deep-fried. Covered in suckers. An octopus tentacle.
I ordered an octopus ball. At first, I felt slightly surprised – I’d always thought octopus balls were deep-fried balls of octopus. Nope, just a ball of dough with some octopus thrown in the middle. This small revelation registered, terror soon gripped me – was I ready to eat a tentacle? Well, I spent 500 yen on six of these mollusk orbs, better not waste ’em.
Stunningly, the tentacle ended up being the best part of the meal. It tasted like nothing and felt like rubber and, once the initial shock of realizing you are biting down on a suction cup passed, didn’t taste too bad. The dough ball filling just plain sucked. I ate four of them before calling it a day and drinking my Pepsi Nex extra fast.
The moral – never order anything in ball form here. Who knows what insidious surprises wait inside.
(Japanese Fun Fact #6 – In Nagoya there is a club called C.R.E.A.M. Yes, after the seminal Wu-Tang Clan song. They play “New York Hip-Hop and Rap.” I picture a bunch of awkwardly dressed Japanese people dancing to “Da Mystery of Chess-Boxin’.” I want to go to this place and just see what happens. It might be number one on my Japan to-do list.)